Updated: Aug 5, 2021
If James Bond qualifies as a superspy, then Benedict Cumberbatch looks more like a bantam spy with The Courier, opening in theaters today. Except that in real life, the character Cumberbatch plays gets credit for a super accomplishment, successful delivery of stolen information that saved millions of lives.
Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a bland British businessman recruited by the U.S. to use his regular job as an excuse to make connections in the Soviet Union. Looking totally incapable of driving fast cars, seducing every woman he sees, or firing a gun, Wynne simply carries documents over the border. Scratch that word “simply”—real risks abound, laid out clearly in a script by Tom O’Conner. However, real life means that unlike James Bond antics, action often involves talking a lot and feeling nervous.
Working with topflight actors like Cumberbatch, Director Dominic Cooke achieves a believable level of tension. Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel lends a recognizable American presence to the picture as a C.I.A agent, though Merab Ninidze stands out more as the Soviet defector who risks his life to prevent the nuclear war that seemed imminent when the Cuban Missile Crisis struck. As the defector’s benign counterpart, Cumberbatch breaks out of his brash, youthful Sherlock Holmes mode to play a fish out of water, a man few would bother to notice.
The set up proves intriguing. The Courier effectively holds attention, though like its subject, it often proceeds carefully, with obvious moves. Providing an underlying story to the more widely known public arena of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Courier delivers valuable supporting material.
Coincidentally, Cumberbatch gets another current big screen version of a real-life situation in The Mauritanian. The Mauritanian treads some territory similar to The Courier, with governments plotting against one another and putting someone else’s citizen in prison. This time Cumberbatch shows up as an attorney, one representing the United States government against the title character, sent to Guantanamo Bay from a small African country.
Accused of recruiting one of the 9/11 plotters, the Mauritanian languished for years without a trial. Director Kevin MacDonald, best known for The Last King of Scotland, explores two main aspects of the case. One comes with the search for justice as an attorney played by Jodie Foster insists on providing the legal rights due to the Mauritanian regardless of his guilt or innocence. The other quality comes from the man himself, played by Tahar Rahim.
Despite a horrific ordeal, the man from Mauritania--Mahamadu Ould Slahi—discovers a sense of peace through forgiveness. That message, along with strong performances from Cumberbatch, Rahim, and Foster, proves absorbing and enlightening.